From Round to Square (and back)

For The Emperor's Teacher, scroll down (↓) to "Topics." It's the management book that will rock the world (and break the vase, as you will see). Click or paste the following link for a recent profile of the project:

A new post appears every day at 12:05* (CDT). There's more, though. Take a look at the right-hand side of the page for over four years of material (2,000 posts and growing) from Seinfeld and country music to every single day of the Chinese lunar calendar...translated. Look here ↓ and explore a little. It will take you all the way down the page...from round to square (and back again).
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Thursday, July 5, 2012

Asian Ethnicities—Introduction

[a] Southwest RF
I'll be teaching a seminar this autumn by the name of "Asian Ethnicities." I have chosen these words carefully—mushy though they sound—and plan to stick with them despite the fact that every bit of software in my arsenal—from Microsoft Word to Blogspot—doesn't "like" the latter. The seminar, cross-listed for credit in history and anthropology, will deal with the manner in which ethnicity has played out, so to speak, over that vast and vague world we incoherently call "Asia" during, say, the last 3,000 years. That's a big topic, and I noticed the other day that I have a whole bunch of students who have enlisted for this dive into the inchoate mass of material we call ethnic studies. I speak of the confusion surrounding ethnic studies in a spirit of bubbling academic excitement, not frustration. Ethnic issues can create all sorts of rifts and confusions in the academic world, and it goes without saying that is because they intersect profound social, economic, and political issues that have everything to do with power, getting it, keeping it, and losing it.

It signals "relevance" and "contention" faster than you can say "SB 1070."

[b] Winding RF
I'm also writing a book right now on this very subject, and that is another reason why I have begun this series. My Beloit College colleague, András Boros-Kazai, and I are co-authoring an encyclopedic work that deals with  as many as 150 ethnic groups in central, northern, and eastern Asia. The final drafts are due next May, but we have been getting the background work done during the last few months. As with the series "Asian Miscellany," I hope to try out a few "long drafts" of my entries for that volume in these posts. They are not, of course, meant to be the same thing as the book. That would defeat the purpose, and on many levels. This is a place to work out some ideas, and the first three broad topics covered here will show exactly why this has appeal for me. Dealing with ethnic majorities in China, Japan, and Korea, they set the tone for the flurry of essays that will follow this autumn and winter.

That's a whole mouthful of stuff, so let's take a step to consider what it all means. Then we'll dive right into the heart(s) of the matter.
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[c] Complicated RF
To begin, let's think about those two words: "Asian" and "Ethnicities." Asia is a big ol' land mass, and has no obvious borders. It's not like Africa, North America, or South America that way. We can "picture" those, even despite the linkages and appendages that complicate our mental sketches. As any thirteenth century Mongol could tell you, Asia blends pretty seamlessly into Europe, and a conquering force can cover the territory a good deal more easily than it can by hopping into ships and crossing the Indian Ocean...or even trying to navigate the Sea of Japan during heavy storms.

Asia—it's a great big blob of turf, and not easy to define. Eurasia is a bigger blob of turf, and a portmanteau on top of it; it's even harder to define. The reason I am sticking with it has to do with the topic of the book, of course, but even more because I like the vagueness of it all. It suits both the project and these posts. I want to consider the Tajiks right along with the Miao, and the Ainu with the both the Uyghurs and the Mongols. I want it messy, right down to the question "what about "Uighurs?"

[d] Blending RF
O.k., maybe that namby-pamby mushiness will be all right with you when it comes to the territory we'll cover. But why on earth (and its various continents) do I insist on saying "ethnicities?" Wouldn't "Asian Ethnicity" sound better? Maybe even a little more objective?

Yes, it certainly would sound better. It just wouldn't be messy enough. Ethnicity? That sounds just a little bit too clean and segmented for my purposes. I am working with gummed-up machinery here. This isn't like knowing engine parts and being able to show how they function smoothly as separable items working together. That's sloppy structural-functionalism, and it won't cut it here. Ethnicity only seems to be clean and separable, and to the extent that we perpetuate the "parts" rhetoric we fail to underline just how much merging and assimilating and, frankly, fighting goes into every aspect of ethnic discussion.

Even delineating an ethnic group ("the Bai people live near Lake Er in Yunnan, wear colorful clothing, and make toys of bamboo") is ideological and pointed. There is nothing "objective" about it. The very idea of ethnic groupings creates a profoundly mixed-up concatenation of "subjectivities" that are not told well if they seem clear and clean—like the minority group (民族) dolls in native dress that can be purchased in department stores all over China.

Think of this series as a kind of paper doll exercise in which those clearly articulated ethnic groups start blending together, fighting, resolving, and intermarrying over 3,000 years of history. Asian Ethnicities. It's supposed to be complicated.
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We'll get underway with a series of posts dealing with ethnic majorities in East Asia. I struggled for a while with drafts of various entries for the book, and only in the last few days did it occur to me that these groups—the Han majority in China, the Japanese majority extending from the early Yamato state, and the Korean majority on the Korean peninsula—so dominate all discussion of ethnicity in their areas that they need to be considered from the start. It is not (let's be absolutely clear about this) because they are "more important." It is simply that the way people tend to talk about (and teach about) the history and culture of their regions is profoundly shaped by those ethnic groups. They will get us started, and we'll take it from there as summer turns to fall and the big seminar (and the book) get underway.
[e] Presentation RF

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